Nov 16, 2011

Micro-tension: Welcome To Life

By Melinda Carroll

There was an LDS Family Services counselor who spoke at a multi stake meeting a few weeks ago about overcoming trauma and fear.  One thing really struck me in that meeting.  She said that our bodies are engineered to handle the big catastrophes.  People who have been through horrendous tragedies surprisingly don't always need counseling because their brains and bodies are essentially wired to help them endure.  Instead, its the smaller things-- the day-to-day trials and struggles-- that actually impact us more and do greater harm.  Especially when we're young.

I'm reading a book right now that I feel like I should love but I don't.  There's action (major, end of the world type stuff), a romance, good characters.  The writing is beautiful.  So why don't I like it?  It's boring. There's no micro-tension! Turmoil and major catastrophes?  Yes, there's plenty of those.  But from chapter to chapter it feels like the characters are numb to the crazy things happening around them and they just sit around worrying about the big picture.  It's getting a little annoying, honestly.  The author does a great job of getting us inside the characters' heads, but nothing is happening in there.  At least, nothing new.

So what is micro-tension?  It can be a lot of things.  It's the animosity Harry and Draco have for each other while Harry is trying to defeat Voldemort.  Or the typical teenage/parent tension between Bella and her dad that Bella has to deal with while figuring out how to survive when dating a vampire.  Or the death of a little girl that Katniss honors while trying to stay alive in a horrific game of Last Man Standing.

We need micro-tension in our stories.

If in life it's the small, day-to-day things that impact us the most, maybe it works that way in literature too.  Just like in life, micro-tension develops character, shapes decisions, and often directs the final outcome. The big story is important, but it's the micro-tension from chapter to chapter that keeps us reading.


  1. Great post, Melinda! I find it interesting that this very subject has been on my mind a great deal lately. I just proposed a thesis around the topic of daily hassles. I have always been intrigued by the tendency I see in myself and others to weather the hurricane and then drown in the puddle afterwards. I can totally see why it is a crucial element to include in our stories!

  2. Yes! This is what can make the story feel real and I can relate to it. Well said and THANK YOU.

  3. Thanks, Melinda. I've thought of this before, just not phrased like this. New wording often brings new insight.


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